Monday, December 28, 2009

Meeting With the Dushinsky Rebbe

Early this morning I went with an acquaintance to meet with and speak to the Dushkinsky rebbe, Harav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky shlit"a, of Israel. The rebbe, who is one of the leaders of the Eidah HaChareidis and the son and grandson of the previous two Gavads of Jerusalem, has been in New York for the wedding of one of his sister's children, and to visit with his chasidim and followers here in New York. Instead of appearing like many rebbes, with throngs of people waiting to do his every need and carrying a silver-tipped cane, the rebbe appeared very simply. When he entered the house, he came carrying the newspaper that had been left outside. Because the owners of the home where he was staying were not in New York, he said that he didn't want them to build up outside, making the walkway look cluttered and alerting would-be thieves that the homeowners are away. This may seem like something small and logical, but when someone speaks of or thinks of a rebbe, it conjures up images of being consumed by holiness and spirituality that places them elsewhere, on another plane of existence, not someone who pays attention to the minutia of small things that worry those of us engulfed by the physical world.

Dushinsky itself is rather new on the Chasidic landscape, having only been formed in the early 1930's after the current rebbe's grandfather moved to Israel and accepted the mantel of leadership of the Eidah HaChareidis upon the death of Harav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld zt"l. The first Dushinsky rebbe was one of the most outspoken opponents of the formation of the Zionist State of Israel, delivering a famous speech to the United Nations explaining the Jewish case against establishing the country. After his death in 1948, his son (the current rebbe's father) Harav Yisroel Moshe Dushinsky zt"l became the rebbe and leader of the Eidah until his passing 2003, when the current rebbe accepted the mantel of leadership of the chasidus, with Harav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss shlit"a becoming the head rabbi of the Eidah HaChareidis.

When I sat and spoke with him, he was very interested to hear what was going on in my life, and showed himself to be very simple and humble. After learning of where I daven (pray) here in Boro Park, he commented that he knew the rav of the shul, and he also happens to be a close cousin of my rosh yeshiva from Israel. The rebbe's wife, in a somewhat unexpected way, also sat at the table with us and spoke. She was very animated and open, and when she spoke to be she looked at me directly in the eyes, which is not something that religious women of her caliber would normally do. The rebbetzin (rebbe's wife) spoke to me at length about shidduchim (the matchmaking process), and proved to be a very clever woman. When it came time for me to go, she told me that she and her husband would very much like to hear from me when they return to Israel, and that they would like to have me in their home on any trip that I make to Israel. As I left, another man entered to meet with the rebbe, and the rebbe walked to him, introduced himself to him, and began to take interest in hearing his many requests from the rebbe, something that would usually be more formal with other rebbes, who have assistants and secretaries to listen to and organize visitors. At the end of the visit, I came away with a very positive and comforting view of the rebbe, who, along with his wife, seemed very down-to-earth and genuinely kind, a mensch-par-excellence.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Read 'Em and Weep

In this week's parsha (Torah portion), Vayigash, we find several instances of people crying. In Bereishis (Genesis) 45:14, Yosef (Joseph) and his brother Binyomin (Benjamin) fall on one another's neck and weep. Rashi explains that Yosef and Binyomin were crying because of the future destruction of the beis hamikdash (temple), which would take place within their territory in the Land of Israel. Similarly, in the very next verse, it is recorded that "Yosef kissed his brothers and cried over them." In this instance, however, Rashi does not explain that they were also crying over the destruction of the beis hamikdash.

To explain the difference between the two situations, the Aish Kodesh brings support from the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah 28a, where it states, "Commandments were not given to provide enjoyment." Rashi, in his commentary on the Gemara, explains that commandments were given to Israel as a yoke on the neck. This, then, is an explanation of the symbolism found in the account of Yosef and Binyomin. When the two cried with one another, they did so on each other's necks, showing that they mourned the instances of Jews throwing off the yoke of the mitzvos that would happen after the beis hamikdash would be destroyed.

The Aish Kodesh explains that each Jew carries the yoke of the mitzvos on their neck, as we go through life with a specific Divine task. We are required to learn Torah and observe the mitzvos everyday, and are charged to have holy thoughts and speech. The Aish Kodesh says that even at times when we are physically prevented from observing certain mitzvos, we must put forth even greater effort, as we still have the yoke of the mitzvos. In a time of complete catastrophe, when suffering is overwhelming and the world seems to be turned completely upside down, people can not only come to abandon certain mitzvos, but they can shrug off the entire yoke of the mitzvos altogether.

When Yosef was once again reunited with his father Yaakov (Jacob), the Torah records (Bereishis/Genesis 46:30) that Yosef cried on his father's neck, but it does not say that Yaakov cried on the neck of his son. Rashi notes that while Yosef cried, Yaakov was reciting the Shema (the group of verses that are of central importance in Judaism). The Aish Kodesh explains that Yosef came to his father, and began to cry on his father's neck, mourning the future plight of the Jewish people. Yosef also knew that his father, as well as the rest of the people, were now coming into Mitzrayim (Egypt), which would result in an eventual enslavement that would introduce the Jewish people to great levels of tumah (impurity). Yosef, therefore, wanted to know how the Jewish people would survive their time in Mitzrayim, and persevere to reach Har Sinai, where they would receive the Torah. Yaakov, to answer his son's deepest yearning for understanding, began to recite the Shema, showing Yosef that the people would survive by a constant returning of their souls to G-d. This is because the recitation of the Shema, when it is recited carefully and with great intent, serves to rededicate ourselves to Divine service, echoing the words of the sefer Ma'or v'Shamesh, which states that one who recites the Shema properly during shacharis (the morning prayer service) will find his avodah (Divine work) successful throughout the day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

If the Faller Falls

In Pirkei Avos ("Wisdom of Our Fathers") 2:7 it says, "He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating in the water. He said, 'Because you drowned other, you were drowned, and those who drowned you will eventually be drowned.'" Rabbeinu Bachya, in his sefer Chovos HaLevavos ("Duties of the Heart", written in 1040) asserts that all monetary loss and physical harm that befall a person are decreed in the Heavenly court. The Ohr HaChaim ("Light of Life", Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar), along with others, disagrees with Rabbeinu Bachya in this, stating instead that Heavenly decrees are fulfilled primarily in natural ways, and only secondarily through human hands. Furthermore, a person of high criminal drive may also act out their violent desires on those without a specific Heavenly decree. Based on this secondary opinion by the Ohr HaChaim, criminal cannot claim to simply being messengers of the Divine Will, as it states in Makkos (10b), "Bad things come from bad people." The Rambam (Maimonides) writes that this is why the Egyptians were punished for enslaving Israel, which was clearly something that had been Divinely decreed against the people.

The Ruach HaChaim, in his commentary on this particular portion of Pirkei Avos, cites Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:8, "Make a fence for your roof so that you will not place blood in your home if the faller falls from it." The language of the Hebrew states explicitly "ki yipol hanofeil mimenu," or "if the faller falls from it," showing that the one who falls in such a case is someone who is already destined to die by falling due to a Divine decree. The fact that the Torah still finds the owner of the building liable for the faller's death shows that we can act in ways which remove ourselves from the place of arbiter of Divine punishment. In the case of the drowning victim, even if he died because of his own misdeeds, those who drowned him will also be punished.

In the written Torah itself, several activities carry with them punishments that are in the form of the death penalty. The Oral Torah, however, which contains the details regarding the specifications for such punishments outlines an intricate set of requirements:
1. Two legally proper witnesses must see the perpetrator on their way to commit an offense that requires capital punishment.
2. The two witnesses must both warn the perpetrator of the consequences of committing such a crime.
3. The perpetrator of the crime must give clear acknowledgement as to the consequences, and then continue with the desired course of action.
4. An elaborate set of judicial procedures, including rigorous examination of witnesses and limited means of introducing evidence, had to be carried out with complete success.
All of these requirements were to limit the executions carried out by the beis din (court) in ancient Israel. Indeed, when the Jewish people began to decrease in their piety, and there were doubts in their ability to carry out the judicial specifications in the most detailed way, the Sanhedrin recused themselves and all other Jewish courts of being able to carry out capital punishment. This, then, placed the Divine decree completely in the hands of the Divine through natural phenomena.

A famous discussion regarding the death penalty takes place in Makkos (one of the groups of the Mishnah), with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon on one side, and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel on the other. The mishna cites that a court which killed one person in seven years was considered destructive, and some opinions even stated that a court which killed on person in seventy years was considered destructive. Rabbis Akiva and Tarfon then assert that had they lived during the time when the Sanhedrin carried out capital punishment (as they were born several generations later), their own attention to detail would have made their rigorous examination of the case so intense that no person would ever be able to be found guilty in such a case.

(Written in honor of Harav Levi Yitzhcok ben Sorah Sosha, ztzv'kl, the Bostoner Rebbe, who was niftar on Shabbas parshas Vayishlach.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

These Lights Are Holy

Just a few short things about Chanukah...
1. Chanukah is one of the three major holidays (the other two being Purim and Simchas Torah) that was established by Chazal (the early rabbinic sages). As such, it shows the importance of human interaction in the development of the spiritual process, and the need of human interaction to fulfill the Divine will. Even though the holiday of Chanukah was established by Chazal, the blessings that we recite over the candles cites G-d as commanding us to light them. This is because G-d wants human interaction, human thought, and human processes to go into the reciprocating process of creation, and He Himself commanded humanity to do so. Thus, the creation of Chanukah is a fulfillment of this command, and we can make a blessing citing G-d as the "commander" of the holiday.

2. The Chiddushei HaRim, the first Gerrer Rebbe zt"l, writes that the act of lighting the menorah is not simply a commemoration of the miracles of Chanukah, but that we actually see the miracles in our own lights. This is shown by the fact that we say "haneiros halelu", or "these lights" are holy, not simply the ones in previous times. Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev zt"l, the Kedushas Levi, writes that each year during Chanukah, the strength and miracles of the original Chanukah are put into the world. The result of this is an intense potential for spiritual enlightenment, which he says can be felt to the extent that we withdraw ourselves from physicality and attach ourselves to spirituality instead. The Sfas Emes, grandson of the Chiddushei HaRim, says we can do this by allowing the mitzvah of lighting the menorah to help us connect to that which is beyond the natural world. This is, indeed, the entire point of mitzvos, as they are meant to turn the mundane world into a continuous spiritual endeavor.

3. While Chanukah is celebrated for eight days, the miracle of the lights itself did not last for eight full days. Because enough oil was found to last one day, the miracle of Chanukah is truly only seven days. The Beis Yosef, a prominent legal scholar of the 1500's, famously asks this question in his writing. While there are many answers given by various authorities, and answers continue to be suggested, I have a personal favorite. The answer that speaks to me the most is that at a time when all seemed to be destroyed, after having taken back the temple from the hands of the Greeks, and seeing that they had completely defiled the temple, the fact that they still had enough hope to even look for pure oil is itself a miracle. Therefore, we celebrate the holiday of Chanukah for eight days: seven for the oil, and one for the perseverance of hope and trust in G-d, even when it seems to not make sense.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Life is Contemplation Spread Thin

This week's Torah portion, Vayeishiv, includes the passage, "And Yaakov settled in the land where his father dwelled" (Bereishis/Genesis 37:1). The Noam Elimelech zt"l, the holy Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, the author of one of the greatest Chasidic works, connects this passage to the verse in Tehillim (Psalms), "May there be peace in Your chambers, serenity in your palaces." In showing the connection between these two verses, the Noam Elimelech addresses the innate task of the human being, an why we are given the specific role that we are given in creation.

To explain this, the Rebbe Reb Meilech brings the teaching of the Gemara that since the beginning of creation, there was not one who called G-d "Adon", or Master. The first being to do so was Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, who began to address G-d as Adon, teaching us that we must strive to unify the Divine Name of Hashem, the four letter sacred name of G-d, which is read the same way as Adon'ai (My Master). The Zohar (central work of kaballah) further teaches that whenever we read the sacred Name of G-d as Adon'ai, we should meditate on unifying both names of G-d that are pronounced in that way. When this is done, the task is completed as is stated in Shacharis (the morning service), "El Adon al kol hama'asim," that Hashem is the Master over all creation. The name El implies mercy, as it says in Tehillim (Psalms), "The mercy of El exists all day long." Therefore, when we unify the Divine Name of G-d, we succeed in drawing down mercy into the world, which is "El" (the awakening of kindness in the world), and G-d becomes "Adon al kol hama'asim", master over all creations.

This unification of G-d's name, and the resulting Mastership of G-d, is the meaning of the verse in Chavakuk (Habakkuk 2:20), "Hashem is in His holy place; all the earth is quiet in His presence." The name Adon'ai, as it is the means of pronunciation for the sacred Name of G-d (which is not spelled Adon'ai), is called the "heichal" (entry hall) to the Divine Name. So, when the unification is brought into the "palace" (Sacred Name) by means of the "entry hall" (contemplating the word Adon'ai), "all the earth is quiet," as kindness and tranquility are released into creation. This is the deeper teaching of the verse in Bereishis (Genesis 2:5), "There was no man to work the ground." The word for ground, "adamah", is also used in the phrase in the Torah, "adamah Elyon," meaning, "I shall liken myself to the Exalted One." Therefore, man should always strive to compare the creation (adamah) to the Creator (Elyon), drawing the lower world to unity with the upper world. This is the reason for the creation of Adam, the first creature to begin the process of unifying the worlds. This beginning process is alluded to in the kaballistic introduction to the creation of Adam, stating that "a mist ("ad" in Hebrew, the first two letters of Adon'ai) rose from the ground."

From Adam until Avraham Avinu, no person called G-d "Adon", Master. Because of Avraham's great love and intellectual service, he was able to truly call G-d Master. According to the Noam Elimelech, this is done primarily through intellect, and the contemplation on the greatness of creation and the loftiness of G-d. After this meditation, awe and fear will naturally develop due to the intensity of the true expansion of Hashem's presence in creation. The Noam Elimelech says that this is the ideal manner in which we should serve G-d, as mitzvos (commandments) are also directed at this process. If this is the case, then why do we need to do the mitzvos at all? Shouldn't we achieve our avodah (holy work) through the better process of meditation, and not through the physical tasks associated with mitzvos?

To answer this question, the Noam Elimelech notes that we are, through the process of creation, (either seemingly or literally) compartmentalized into bodies, with each fleck of our souls having greater intensity around the physical bodies that we inhabit. If we were to simply meditate on G-d and the greatness of creation at all times, without interruption, our physical existence would be nullified due to the overwhelming majesty of G-d. This would not allow us to continue to live and awaken the sparks of Divinity scattered throughout creation for us to find. Therefore, we were given mitzvos, commandments to connect us to our physical body and to less-obviously lofty parts of creation. However, so that we would not be connected to physicality simply to be connected, each mitzvah was connected intrinsically to a piece of creation where we are to awaken sparks of the Divine (ex. special restrictions of shechita, or kosher slaughter for animals), which give us the connection to physicality and G-d at the same time, a state of being called "deveikus", or "cleaving."

This is the meaning of the verse first addressed in the opening, "And Yaakov settled in the land where his father dwelled." The root of the Hebrew word for "dwelled" (megurei) is also found in the verse in Bamidbar (Numbers 22:3), "Vayigar Mo'av...And Moav was afraid." Therefore, the verse can be read, "And Yaakov feared G-d at His true level of majesty." This is spoken about Yaakov in reference to the land of Canaan, which represents the physical world and body, and shows that Yaakov was able to remain in the correct level of fear because he was able to remain in his physical body to do his task of deveikus.

Therefore, the verse in Tehillim says, "May there be peace in your chambers, serenity in your palaces." The word for peace, "shalom", is the same as the word "shaleim", which means "complete" or "unified". Similarly, the word for "your chambers" (chayil) is the same as the word for the Divine legions in the upper world. Also, the word for "palaces" in the second half of the verse refers to the physical body, with which one uses to serve G-d through the physical commandments. This presents the deeper meaning of the verse, reading, "May the upper worlds (which is essentially the Divine Name) be unified, bringing about serenity in the physical world." May we all achieve the ability to meditate on creation and the mitzvos done through physical creation, so that "with our own bodies we see G-d," and remain balanced so that our deveikus may last from now until eternity, umein v'umein.